The student arrived early, sat front and center, and stood out in my classroom in more ways than one. I’d say that he had about 40 years on his classmates in my undergraduate communications class at California State University, Los Angeles. He eagerly jumped into class discussions, with his self-deprecating humor and wisdom of experience. And he was always respectful of the other students’ perspectives, as if each of them were a teacher. Jerry Valencia walked in with a smile—and he left with one too.
“These students gave me the confidence that I didn’t need to feel bad about my age,” Valencia says.
One day, I spotted Valencia on campus. He said he would have to stop taking classes that semester and reapply for next year. By then, he hoped to have earned enough money from construction jobs and have his student-loan papers in order. But he said he was still coming to campus to attend events or see friends. He asked demurely whether he could still sit in on my communications class.
Sure, I said. But he wouldn’t get any credit.
No problem, he said.
Soon there he was again, back at his old desk, front and center, jumping into our discussions on how to find and tell stories in Los Angeles—a 63-year-old Cal State LA junior with as much energy and curiosity as any of the youngsters in class.
For an assignment on changing neighborhoods, Valencia wrote about a favorite local chain restaurant that was “unceremoniously closed.” He called it an “earth-shattering” development and a theft of childhood. “It is almost as if someone has stolen that childhood and replaced it with a slippery hill where everything they cherish will slide away,” he wrote.
A lot of Valencia’s classmates apparently knew he couldn’t afford that semester’s tuition but was still doing the homework.
“Here he is, willingly taking a class for the joy of it and benefit of learning,” says Jessica Espinosa, a 25-year-old junior. “You don’t see that in our generation.”
Valencia showed up and took the final exam too. Afterward, students were kibitzing, and I overheard Valencia say he wanted to stay in school until he earned a master’s degree, but it had taken him 12 years to finish community college, so he had a long way to go.
He was in and out of school, he said, subject to his work schedule and whether he had money for classes. He had earned his associate of arts degree over the summer, then transferred to Cal State LA to start on his bachelor’s.
I needed to hear more.
Valencia lives, for the time being, in a mobile home park. He greeted me when I arrived and poured me a cup of coffee.
He told me that his dad had worked at a brick-manufacturing plant and in auto assembly. His mother worked at home. Most of his seven brothers and sisters didn’t go to college, and none finished. Valencia is determined to be the first, despite his late start.
He said he was an average student who struggled with math and went to community college a year after graduating from high school but decided quickly it was not for him. He got into construction and then the insurance industry, but he’d always liked to write and do crossword puzzles. “And I loved to read. A lot,” he said.
He also loved watching Jeopardy! with his mother, and he joked that if one of them ever won the lottery or if he became a Jeopardy! contestant, he’d use the winnings for college.
It was around 2007, Valencia said, that he got tired of telling himself he was going to go back. He told his mother it was finally for real.
“When I went back to school, she said, ‘I hope you make it, Jerry.’ And I told her, ‘I’m going to make it, Mom. I’m going to make it.’ ”
The plan was to capitalize on his construction experience and study civil engineering. But he discovered other interests.
“He was not the youngest student,” says Grant Tovmasian, coach of the forensics debate team Valencia joined. “But he was the most motivated and the most dedicated.”
Tovmasian says Valencia was a great team player in forensics, encouraging fellow students and inspiring them with his desire to educate himself and live a more fulfilling life.
Valencia’s sister Sindi Majors says her brother was always bright, but he went through a couple of rough patches in his life.
“He’s pretty much been homeless,” says Majors, a retired electrician. She bought him a motor home to help him out, and that’s what he lived in from 2009 to 2018.
There is something splendidly irrational about Valencia’s determination to get a four-year degree and then a master’s. At his current pace, he’ll be 90 when he finally hangs all that paper on the wall.
But that doesn’t seem especially relevant. He’s found all the youthful energy and academic opportunity stimulating.
Valencia’s grade in my class this semester will not show up on his transcripts. But I’m giving him an A—and in the most important ways, it counts.